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Tornillo-Guadalupe Port of Entry: Bridge to Nowhere

The largest land port of entry in the U.S. is on target to be opened for business by the end of the year.

Thu February 20, 2014 - West Edition
Lori Tobias

The largest land port of entry in the U.S. is on target to be opened for business by the end of the year. The U.S. and Mexico Consulates announced late January that construction on the $130 million Tornillo-Guadalupe Port of Entry in El Paso County, Texas, is scheduled to be completed by July 2014.

The port of entry has been in the works for at least a dozen years.

“This project reflects the challenges there are in constructing Port of Entries,” said El Paso County Commissioner Vincent Perez. “It’s probably one of the most complex construction projects there is. It involves local, state, federal and a completely sovereign government on the opposite side of the border which we have no control over. People refer to these as once-in-a-lifetime projects.”

The new facility will replace the Fabens, Texas, port of entry and include a new international bridge known as the Tornillo-Guadalupe International Bridge. It’s located about 30 mi. outside of El Paso and is intended to be a model of a new kind of port of entry for the rest of the country, Perez said.

Construction on the U.S. side began in 2011. The federal government took charge of the security and inspection facilities, while El Paso County handled the highway access and one-quarter mi. long bridge over the Rio Grande River. The bridge sits about 16 ft. (4.9 m) from the top of the levy or about 24 ft. (7.3 m) from the top of the river.

The biggest challenge came in having to work so close to the riverbed and the unstable material around it, said Fernando Hernandez, civil engineer with the El Paso County Public Works.

“It’s silty sand and it’s not very stable,” Hernandez said. “You are right there at the water table and everything you do is a little more at risk. You are drilling piers six feet in diameter. The ones at the riverbed were 85-feet to 90-feet in depth and when you are drilling that deep you have the capability of cave-ins. It’s very critical that you have those good solid walls to hold up while you are drilling and that while you are pouring concrete it doesn’t affect your drill shaft.”

Contractors installed dewatering pumps to temporarily lowering the water table. Once the water dried out, they drilled out the silt and pumped in viscous mud material. The heavier mud helped create crust on the wall and it helped keep the shaft open, Hernandez said. “Once you pump in the concrete it pushes up the mud into the collection system, and it is recirculated back into the riverbed.”

Construction on the U.S. portion of the international bridge saw about 25 to 45 people at work on the bridge daily, he said.

The existing Fabens facility was built in about the 1930s and has only one and a-half lanes capacity. The new Port of Entry will have the capacity for six lanes, but, more importantly, is being constructed with an updated look at border security.

“The way it works is drugs flow north and the guns and money flow south,” Perez said. “Original Ports of Entry weren’t designed to accommodate southbound inspections. Traditionally, the U.S. has viewed that as Mexico’s problem. But as the drug war escalated around 2006 … the U.S. realized a greater need for more emphasis on southbound checks. Many of our posts were not designed for that and they are difficult to retrofit. This port has the capacity for that. Customs offices will be able to inspect commercial and passenger vehicles returning to Mexico to look for guns and money. It will be a model for the nation.”

The new entry also is expected to facilitate the flow of traffic, allowing patrol officers to both direct and inspect traffic more efficiently, Perez said. The wait to cross the border now can be as long as three hours, which can stifle the economy — worth about $30 million of goods annually. “Who wants to wait in line three hours to come into the U.S?” Perez asked.

But while the United States has been at work for three years, Mexico has been behind on construction, and that’s caused some head-scratching about the bridge, which extends beyond the border fence — and stops.

“For the longest time it became known as the bridge to nowhere,” Perez said. “If you were to see the site, you would see the bridge hanging half way. Mexico not only has to construct its side of the bridge and security facility, but also needs to construct the road infrastructure. But there’s never been a time when the U.S. or Mexico has not fulfilled its obligation to construct the Port of Entry.”

Mexico is just getting started on construction, but its side of the project is expected to take only six months. That’s because Mexico does not call for some of the stringent processes, such as environmental studies and permits, that the United States requires, Perez said.

Meanwhile, the project has not only created jobs, but spawned new development around the Port.

“It certainly is good for that,” he said. “For every seven jobs created in Mexico, one job is created in the U.S., Perez said. But more importantly, is the boon to business after the new port opens.

“We are very dependent on cross border trade,” Perez said. “The flow of traffic is so important to our economy, we will do anything to speed it up. It helps both our economies.”

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